Game Design, Programming and running a one-man games business…

Getting the development / PR balance right

…is a difficult thing for an indie game. I know of some companies where HALF the staff work full time on promoting the game. Doing nothing but making youtube videos, tweeting, replying to people on forums and facebook, emailing the press, looking for new indie game review sites, and generally building up a chatty online presence with lots of online friends so that they have an easier job of getting ‘viral’ PR for their game when it launches.

I totally understand why some indies work that way. it makes a lot of economic sense. I’ve also read about indies who spend six months making a game, then just promote, publicize and do SEO for the enxt two years to milk that game, and claim that it is a far better use of their time than merely making another game. This kinda saddens me.

there are of course, other indies who sit in a dark room churning out the most cool, original and fun games that nobody ever hears about because they hate / suck at doing PR and thus remain effectively ‘undiscovered’. This is a real shame.

So where is cliffski and positech games in all this. I know quite a few cynical whiny online ‘haters’ who think I’m in the 95% PR group. They tend to be the people who say GSB looks like it was done in flash in a weekend because it’s 2D. (*yawn*). Actually, I’m closer to the dark cavern guy than the ‘always promoting’ guy. I tweet a few times a day, but only half of that is about games. I rarely post to facebook, I post on the odd forum, but not enough to have a real ‘presence’ anywhere. I’ve only been to GDC once, never to PAX or Comicon, or any other non-UK trade event. I’ve given two public talks, and appeared on 2 panels. That’s it.

My biggest ‘PR’ is probably this blog, which isn’t a big time commitment at all. I also write for Custom PC magazine in a similar style.

Getting the balance right is extremely hard. I am probably not doing enough PR for Redshirt and Democracy 3 yet, although that will change in the next month or two. The problem I face is I never know how close a game of mine is to being done until it’s more or less done, so I always think I’ll be doing PR too early. An example of someone who has done well both on making a great game AND doing great PR for it is Andy Schatz’s Monaco. The problem is, that game took six hundred years to make, and that would drive me mad. I like to aim for a game a year / eighteen months at most.

This year, I am aiming to be a bit more committed to PR. I’ll be at rezzed, with a booth this time! A proper one with 4 screens and 2 games, which is a staggeringly expensive thing to do, if I’m honest. I even bought a video camera to take to stuff like this (only a cheap one) so I can have some ‘our game at rezzed’ footage to spice up some promotional videos, and to hopefully film people playing the games to see how they play them. I might put in an appearance at other shows too,  who knows.

Hardly anyone gets the balance right, and I think it’s an essential component of an indie games success. Even more so if you have to go through ‘greenlight’ to get on steam. That’s an extra, very targeted peice of PR you now need to do on top of everything else. Arrrgghhhh…

9 thoughts on Getting the development / PR balance right

  1. You don’t have to do your own PR if you outsource the effort. For example you could send TotalBiscuit a beta-build (if you are confident in it) and let him go through the painstaking work of creating a youtube video. You will get a lot of exposure that way.

    Also, you can encourage the creation of ‘Let’s plays’ by offering some kind of prize for the best one (free copy of redshirt or something along that line).

    I bet my ass that you will make more sales thanks to youtube than to rezzed or whatevercon.

  2. Great post.
    Like many indies I hate the PR part.
    I still think that if a game is really exceptionaly good, you can ignore PR and let your customers tell their friends. If on average each customer makes 1.01 friends try it, you have a run away hit.

  3. Hey Cliff, great post!

    I have to ask though, are there really that many people out there that believe you’re in the 95% PR group?? They obviously haven’t heard or read about many indie games if you’re considered one of those developers who puts the majority of their focus on PR. Perhaps they see a lot of the analytical stuff you post on your site and mistake that for “PR”. Obviously you care about sales, but I think that any sane gamer who has been around your games and your blog long enough would soon realize that you’re just passionate about the games you make and the business side of indie development. I mean, there’s really nothing wrong with doing a lot of PR to try an promote your game, as long as it doesn’t distract from focusing on the game that has been developed or is being developed. I think you’re right that nobody has figured out that perfect balance just yet, but with all of the information out there at least it’s easier for indie developers to reach more people these days than it was during the old Shareware and BBS era. :-)

    1. I think there are *some* people who think that, because unless you like my games or read my blog/twitter, then you only ever hear my name when I’m involved in something controversial, like arguing with notch on twitter, or insulting mark rein, or saying something people disagree with about piracy etc etc. As a result, I get the impression some people think I’m deliberately courting that kind of PR, when in fact I’m just a geek who writes loads of stuff that is mostly about cats and solar panels, and only occasionally starts arguments :D

      1. I didn’t hear about any arguments with Notch on twitter, but I do remember the hubbub people made over the Mark Rein incident (Epic Games Mark Rein for people who don’t know who the guy is).

        To me that situation obviously wasn’t a PR stunt because as I recall, Mark was very rude during a public speaking event. Now I know Mark apologized to you, but as much of a “Businessman” as Mark is, he was wrong. To this day I still believe you were right. I would admit that having to remain in contact with all of your customers is a difficult task. It would be crazy especially for large companies like Epic, EA, and Activision (to name a few) to try and stay in touch with their fan base and customers, but there does need to be an open line of communication in one form or another because I know from personal experience that all of those companies send automated emails and tickets whenever they receive a complaint, criticism, bug report, etc. etc. They do not respond personally, and *if* someone does respond it is a consultant who has nothing to do with the actual game development. This is especially problematic in regards to tech support and you can easily find thousands of complaints and issues posted on any of the larger developer websites. The forums there are littered with posts and mail describing problems with their games and in many cases these posts go unanswered, or are not responded to for very long periods of time. More often than not, the responses come from other gamers (consumers) which is utterly ridiculous considering the amount of money these large companies charge for a game.

        It’s a completely different story when dealing with most indie developers, and I’d have to say that at least 95% of the indie developers that I have purchased games from do take the time to respond to their emails, and go so far as to make a connection with their overall fanbase. I know that large sales numbers are good, and important, especially for an indie developer who must succeed at paying their own salary and development expenses, but integrity is, and should always be of the utmost importance to any person (or company) that wants people to buy what they are creating and selling. If these larger (more unscrupulous) companies and their CEO’s can’t at least have personal integrity, they should at least have some sort of business integrity.

        Ultimately, I resent being treated like a robot, or a sheep from the flock. I want to be treated like a valued customer. Unfortunately, it seems that these CEO’s are far removed from the rest of humanity, or perhaps see themselves as above the rest of us. The problem is consumers are also partially to blame. They keep buying the crap that these companies keep churning out, so of course they’re not going to change the way they do business, that doesn’t mean that the way they do business is right.

        Anyway, I’ve gone off topic. Still, I think the controversy surrounding what happened between you and Mark was important for people to hear and read about. I’ve got nothing against Mark personally. I don’t know him personally. I do know that what he did was rude, and that he was wrong.

        Back to the point though, I think the majority of level minded individuals out there could see that your argument wasn’t a PR stunt, however, it may have resulted in some good PR, but inadvertently. It was mostly thanks to Marks remarks. In a way, you got him to work for you, so maybe more indie devs should get into arguments with CEO’s of large publishers and game studios. ;D

        1. Not by coincidence was EA voted to be the worst company in the US. Letting companys which produce mines and wmds far behind. On the other hand, everyone loves Positech. I think we all agree on what the best approach is ^^

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